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Labour + Industry

Solidarity on Life Support? Nurses Union Steps up Raids

After successful raid on Licensed Practical Nurses, BCNU gears up for more.

Tom Sandborn 14 Dec

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy news for The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at

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BC Nurses Union president Debra McPherson: what she calls 'bringing together' other labour leaders call 'division.'

The BC Nurses' Union calls it "bringing the family" together. Rival unions have a different word for what the BCNU has been doing, practically an epithet in the labour movement: "raiding."

Late last month the BCNU launched formal proceedings at the province's Labour Relations Board to win the right to represent psychiatric nurses who work at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster. The move comes hard on the heels of a ruling at the LRB that signaled a victory for the BCNU, as over 7,000 Licensed Practical Nurses, former members of the Hospital Employees Union at six provincial health authorities and Providence Health Care were declared BCNU members. The nurses' union will now be recognized to represent and bargain for these new members.

BCNU president Debra McPherson told the Vancouver Sun that the LRB ruling was a "vindication."

"For those LPNs, I think it is vindication and finally an agreement to what they wanted all along, which is the right to choose which union represents them," she said. "For our union, it means bringing the family of nurses together to solve practice issues and workplace issues that both of us have to deal with on a daily basis."

A spokesperson at the LRB told the Tyee that a hearing had been held Dec. 5 on the BCNU's most recent application, and a vote held among the psychiatric nurses at Royal Columbian on Dec. 6, with the ballot boxes sealed pending further adjudication.

The psych nurses at Royal Columbian are currently represented by the Health Sciences Association, whose president, Reid Johnson, called the raid "a disappointment" when he spoke to the Tyee on Dec. 7. Raiding, the practice of trying to win members already represented by another union to join yours, is viewed as a disloyal breach of solidarity and a waste of members' dues money that should be spent instead on organizing the unorganized.

Noting that the BCNU's documents were filed with the LRB on Nov. 28, while the attention of his union and most B.C. unions was focused on the annual convention of the BC Federation of Labour, a body that suspended BCNU from membership because of earlier raiding activity, Johnson called the timing of the latest raid filing "ironic at best."

"We are disappointed that the BCNU is focusing on this sort of activity instead of building multi-disciplinary teams in the highly complex health care system," Johnson said. "We don't need this kind of division."

The Tyee made repeated phone and email requests to BCNU's communication staff and union President Debra McPherson over the course of a week for comment on these and other criticisms heard from critics of BCNU. The union did not choose to comment or make a spokesperson available for an interview.

More raiding to come

The BCNU apparently has other raids in mind as well. The union's website includes a page called "Nurse+Nurse" inviting Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) working at a wide array of facilities on Vancouver Island and in the Lower Mainland, most represented by the Hospital Employees' Union and a few by the BC Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU), to join the nurses union, under the slogan "one province, one profession, one union."

The sign-up period being promoted on the web site closed on Nov. 23, and a source close to the situation told the Tyee that the BCNU made preliminary applications to the LRB shortly thereafter to have the LPNs at close to 50 facilities certified as members of the nursing union.

Confirming an estimate The Tyee had heard from other union sources, HEU secretary-business manager Bonnie Pearson said the proposed raids on LPNs currently represented by her union and the BCGEU, if successful, could conceivably add up to another 1500 new members to the BCNU.

"It's always offensive to me," she told The Tyee by phone, "when unions decide to prey on each others' members. It always enables and assists the employer."

BCNU's history of raiding

Raids and disputes about raids have been key features in the contentious recent history of the BCNU, and the decisions taken by BCNU leadership to defy strongly worded pleas from the Canadian Labour Congress, the BC Federation of Labour and the Canadian Federation of Nurses' Unions that they stop raiding has led to breaches in the BCNU's relationships with all three umbrella organizations.

In 2009, the BCNU made an initial attempt to raid the LPNs represented by the HEU, an attempt it suspended, some speculated because not enough support had been found among LPNs. But before that temporary withdrawal from raiding, the BCNU had drawn down the wrath of many labour leaders, including Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti, whose body suspended the BCNU from joint labour councils that year.

At that year's BC Federation of Labour convention, Georgetti addressed his concerns about BCNU tactics, telling delegates:

"While I'm happy to be back in B.C., I am also deeply saddened by recent events in our labour movement. The raid by the BC Nurses' Union on Licensed Practical Nurses represented by the Hospital Employees' Union and the BCGEU is wrong in every way.

"I speak more in sorrow than in anger -- because the BC Nurses' Union has had a proud history of working in solidarity with all unions. But today, that solidarity is badly broken.

"The BCNU is not organizing workers who need representation -- it is trying to take existing members away from other unions -- unions that pride themselves on organizing so many unorganized workers in health care, particularly women and immigrant workers.

"I say to the executive of the BC Nurses' Union -- this is dividing our movement and this is eroding our solidarity."

The BC Federation of Labour suspended the BCNU from membership in 2009 because of its raiding activity, and Linda Silas, president of the national nursing union umbrella group the Canadian Federation of Nurses' Unions wrote a stern letter to Debra McPherson, president of the BCNU, which then belonged to the federation, directing her to "uphold both the CLC and CFNU constitutions by ceasing immediately your actions that are found to be raiding under the CLC constitution as per the ruling of CLC president Ken Georgetti, July 30, 2009."

Since that disciplinary letter was sent, the BCNU has withdrawn from its membership in the CFNU.

Contacted for comment on this story, Silas pointed out that BCNU no longer belonged to her organization and declined to comment on the latest raiding dispute.

The BC Federation of Labour issued a statement in May 2012 urging LPNs to reject the last round of BCNU raiding. This week the federation's president Jim Sinclair told The Tyee that intra-union raiding is "a destructive practice." He said that BCNU raids had expended millions of dollars in members' dues money, expenditures that, he said, did nothing to help workers.

"If members are dissatisfied with a union, there are avenues they can take within that union to get improvements."

BCNU blasted by Stephen Lewis

But union leaders are not the only critics of BCNU's campaign of raids against other health care unions. The series of raids drew criticism from Canadian diplomatic icon and United Nations anti-AIDS envoy Stephen Lewis last month. Lewis told members of the HEU gathered in convention that:

"When the rationale -- the real rationale -- for raiding is to argue that one group of health workers is more important, or more privileged, than the other members of the health care team, and therefore should be separate, that's just disgusting."

And the leadership of BCNU has been sharply criticized for its raiding policies by a small but vigorous grassroots opposition within the union. In a document circulated widely to BCNU members in 2011, one of the insurgent nurses (who asked The Tyee not to use his name because of concerns about possible retaliation) posed 14 critical questions to his union's leadership, alleging that the raid on LPNs had not been democratically discussed or voted on within BCNU and that the raids weaken union solidarity and strengthen the employer. One of the questions posed by the statement echoes concerns The Tyee heard from a number of union sources.

"Aren't we playing into the employer's hands?" the document asks. "Divide and rule weakens healthcare workers and strengthens healthcare employers. That's why HEABC has been pushing since 2001 to have LPN's moved out of the Facilities Bargaining Association and into the Nurses' Bargaining Association. Signing up LPN's not only puts us into conflict with all our allies in the rest of the labour movement, it puts us into a curiously cozy relationship with our employers. Why?"

The HSA's Johnson told The Tyee his union is often approached by rank and file members of other unions who are unhappy with their current representation and invited to raid.

"We turn them back to try to improve the union they are in," he said. "We don't raid."  [Tyee]

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